Media bills threaten free press, police

By Jubenal Aguilar 

Copy Editor 

Lawmakers around the country have introduced a variety of bills relating to photographing and filming in public areas.The bills differ greatly in their protections, or lack thereof, of First Amendment rights.The Arkansas legislature recently attempted to pass two bills, House Bill 1079 and Senate Bill 79.

According to PetaPixel, HB 1079 concerned the unlawful use of drones for photography, with penalties of up to $1,000 per photo of a person or property photographed unlawfully.

SB 79, known as the Personal Rights Protection Act, was “designed to protect the privacy and rights of the citizens within the state,” according to fstoppers.com.

Under the bill, a photographer would need a subject’s consent to take a photograph. This would fundamentally classify street photography as illegal.

Neither bill became a law. Representative Justin Harris, who filed HB 1079, scrapped it  Feb. 2. Governor Asa Hutchinson vetoed SB 79 after public opposition. In a public statement, he said the bill “unnecessarily restricts free expression and thus could have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”

However, in 2014, a Texas court “upheld the constitutional right of Texans to photograph strangers as an essential component of freedom of speech — even if those images should happen to be surreptitious ‘upskirt’ pictures of women taken for the purposes of sexual gratification,” according to The Guardian.

Some of the bills proposed by current state legislative sessions target the filming of police officers specifically.

In Texas, Representative Jason Villalba introduced a bill, HB 2918, to make it illegal for people to film police officers within a set distance. Villalba said in interviews he merely wanted to create a halo for officers to be able to do their jobs.

He eventually admitted to not reading the bill clearly and said changes would be made to it after a social media public relations fiasco brought him unwanted attention.

On April 10, Villalba said he would not seek a public hearing for the bill.

In Colorado, politicians seek to protect civilians’ rights to film police officers with HB 15-1290. According to the Open States website, the bill was co-sponsored by three Colorado Democrats.

According to PetaPixel, the two-page bill “states that if a person is lawfully documenting a police officer and then has their imagery seized or destroyed without a warrant, they are entitled to actual damages, $15,000, and attorney fees and costs.”

Colorado Representative Joe Salazar, one of the cosponsors, said the bill is a consequence of a “number of news reports … about police officers telling people, ‘Give me your camera,’ or taking the data away,” according to benswann.com.

According to Section 3 of HB 15-1290, the bill “is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, and safety.”

This is an important statement because Colorado politicians seem to understand that police oversight is something law enforcement should be held accountable for.

These two bills clearly show the differences among the people of the U.S.

On one side is pot-loving Colorado, where peoples’ rights are protected and law enforcement is held accountable for their actions.

On the other is backward Texas, where lawmakers push their ideals, saying you should not be allowed to film an officer, but you should be allowed to take a gun just about anywhere you please.

The problem with Villalba’s bill was that it was not drafted by a politician. It originated from the Texas Municipal Police Officer’s Association, Villalba said.

Although it defined a distance for filming, it did not clearly identify how the law would be applied. What would have happened if an officer saw you filming and walked toward you?

Villalba’s bill also allowed for police oversight. In a time when police officers across the nation are losing public trust due to a rising number of brutality cases, filming has never had a more important role in keeping peace officers in check.

When police officers shoot and kill someone, the victim cannot tell his or her side of the story — we must rely on the possibility of a witness’ video to tell the truth.

Take, for example, the fatal shooting of Walter Scott by officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, S.C., on April 4. Slager said he shot Scott, fearing for his life, after a fight for his taser.

Video from a witness later showed that Slager lied. Slager fired eight rounds as Scott, unarmed, ran away, posing no evident threat to the officer.Slager also appeared to have planted evidence by moving an object from the place of the initial confrontation near Scott’s body.

Had the video not existed, Slager would likely be free today.

Laws against photography, both still and film, should not be passed unless they deal with protecting an individual’s privacy in their own home. Prohibiting photography on the street is essentially prohibiting the documentation of reality and is therefore a violation of First Amendment rights.